Docents, actors, and other volunteers pain-stakingly re-create historic homes in Roswell, Georgia.
Sunlight falls over the staircase and blankets the many cats and dogs that have curled up on the edge of each step to bask in the warmth. The rustle of skirts can be heard. The smell of roasted ham from the Smoke House creeps into the home through the open windows. The cook, a hungry slave, hums to herself as she enters the house through the back door to set dinner on the table for the family that dresses themselves upstairs. Large windows on the front of the house are being opened. These windows reach all the way down to the floor and contain three separate panes that can be opened or closed to become a small slot for food to be passed through by the slaves, a simple window, or, when pulled up to its full height, a large enough opening that could be counted as another door. If a party were to occur the window would be opened all the way so that guests could come and go as they pleased in and out of the house without having to cluster at the front door. There is the possibility that the neighbors across the street at the Bulloch family home might come to visit after dinner, a prospect that excites the only daughter Eva, who has been best friends with Mittie Bulloch for years. The King clan and the Bulloch family are two of the founding families of this mill-based city named Roswell. In the years before the Civil War the city is peaceful. The King family at Barrington Hall has their mill while the Bulloch’s have their gardens. They expect life to remain the same way for years to come.
The year is now 2014. Their houses remain in Roswell, but the old families have long since passed away. Barrington Hall has since become noticed for sharing the same name as the old fashioned coffee brand, a brand which took its name from the house. Bulloch Hall is now remembered for housing Martha Bulloch Roosevelt who would give birth to Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.—the 26th President of the United States. Her family called her Mittie and the nickname has stuck throughout the years. Today at the historic homes of Roswell she is once again referred to as Mittie.
As I stand on the staircase inside Barrington Hall my fantasies of sleeping pets, rustling skirts, roasted ham, and the hope of distinguished visitors disappears. Today the distinguished visitors are not the offspring of Roswell’s finest families. There are no Southern Belles here, nor are there any handsome young gentlemen who have come to discuss politics and have a smoke with the master of the house. Instead there are only four of us: a docent, two tourists, and myself. The two other tourists, women in their sixties and seventies, comment on the house’s furniture and compare them to their own family heirlooms. They can remember being told stories of the opulence and the noble souls that once lived here, but the place is foreign to me. My generation has grown up with i-phones and laptops. These other women standing with me used typewriters. This house was the home to people who never would have imagined such things.
I eye the back staircase slaves would have used and feel a twang of remorse. As someone who has grown up in the post-Roots and Civil Rights era, I cannot picture the simple lifestyles of the rich family that once lived here without thinking of the disturbing cost of such leisure. The back stairs for slaves merges with the family’s staircase. Here slaves and the privileged King family members might have walked side by side: this is the only place in the house where this could be possible.
The docent mentions this to our little group of four. We stop to ponder this while the sunlight streams in from the large window up above us. The slave cabins are long gone having been replaced by a parking lot for visitors. This staircase is one of the few reminders left of the slaves that walked these same halls nearly two hundred years ago.
The docent is a woman in her sixties. Her hair may be auburn colored, but I am sure that this is the work of a dye routinely scrubbed into her hair every few months. Today people do not want to be reminded that they are old. For the King family that once owned this house, living to be sixty was a privilege many did not have. Every wrinkle and scar was worn as a proud reminder of how the house had stood through the Civil War, even when their mill had been burned, even though Union soldiers had occupied the house, and neighbors had stolen many pieces of furniture. These imperfections proudly stated: we were here and we survived. Today we cover our wrinkles, scars, and blemishes with make-up and lotion.
The South’s prickly history has since become an awkward subject for Americans, especially those of us in the South who cannot trace themselves back to founding families and disapprove of slavery whole heartedly. My ancestors were poor farmers. The only way a member of the Hohn family could enter a house like this would be as tourists a hundred years since the original family died. The other women in my tour group do not seem to share this same problem, coming from several generations of Southerners who could trace their family trees back several generations, who kept old family heirlooms in storage, and visited homes like this to become in touch with their roots. I am only a guest.
The docent is no exception to this. “My mother collected antiques,” she tells me. She can remember joining her mother to hunt down traces of a desk, a hat, or a frame as a child. These experiences in her childhood inspired her love of history. Her mother, now in her eighties, still enjoys searching for and collecting antiques. It is a nice tradition for mother and daughter to continue after several decades. Her interest in antiques influences what she says in our tour. She points out the history of several pieces of furniture, excited to explain how this desk actually belonged to this person and how this quilt made of many different scraps of fabric was a present for that member of the house. “Oh,” she exclaims, walking over to the large wooden wardrobe that sits on the second level of the house. “This is my favorite part of the house.” She runs her fingers along the wood. She explains that this wardrobe was built inside the house, and since it is too big to fit through any door in Barrington, this wardrobe sits on the exact same spot where it was built over a hundred and fifty years ago. She then informs us about the history of other pieces of furniture in the house.
I have been on this tour before. My earlier docent had focused on the various people that had lived here, while today’s docent uses her own background of gathering antiques to praise the furniture. A lot of the furniture in Barrington today is the same furniture the original King family would have used, but some pieces or recreations or period-accurate pieces that had belonged to someone else before being tracked down by antique-lovers.
The layout of historical houses like Barrington is painstakingly re-created time and time again by the few members of staff each house has. A few years ago one volunteer at Barrington was able to track down the actual bed one resident slept in and the matching dresser through the magic of E-bay! I should explain that this would have been an extremely difficult task since much of the furniture in both houses was spread out across the south in storage units, relative’s basements, and museums. This one volunteer was able to find the exact bed and dresser through a lot of hard work and dedication after reading countless family letters that detailed the appearance of these pieces of furniture.
A large part of researching these historic homes and their families comes from reading family letters, journals, and any form of writing that has been preserved after all these years.
One worker, Gwen Koehler, the education coordinator at Bulloch Hall across the street, recently discovered several Bulloch family letters in a museum up in Washington D.C. Since then Koehler and a friend are currently compiling these letters to publish in a book. These letters are especially interesting because they contain correspondence between Mittie Bulloch and her son Theodore Roosevelt, the former President of the United States.
While Barrington Hall covers several generations of family members that have inherited the house, Bulloch Hall is all about Mittie, her ties to the Roosevelt’s, and her parents that had at one point disapproved of the marriage. Every year in December people flock to Bulloch Hall to re-create the wedding between founding family members Stephen and Martha Bulloch (Mittie’s parents). This is one of several important historical events that are re-enacted at Roswell’s historic homes.
The re-enactment of the wedding is noticeable because it does not only feature actors in costumes: the docents and other volunteers have to dress up too. The attention at this event is directed towards the actors playing the bride and groom, but I doubt their costumes are much more comfortable. Volunteers that play the spectators are handed whatever is available or left over. The dresses look tight and very tiny on modern day women. The women of the Bulloch and King families, like many southern women, were very short, so an average sized woman today would not enjoy being stuffed into these old-fashioned clothes for historical re-enactment events. At the time of the actual wedding between Stephan and Martha, women wore an astonishing number of fourteen petticoats (no wonder a fainting couch was kept on stand-by downstairs: women would simply collapse from the heat). Luckily, the re-enactors today do not have to wear all fourteen petticoats, and they get to enjoy modern air conditioning, but I imagine that wearing these costumes is no picnic for anyone. Yet every year the wedding is preformed nearly word-for-word to re-enact the wedding as accurately as possible because Bulloch Hall’s history is that important to the people of Roswell.
In the summer there are some more historical reenactment events. The most popular one occurs at Barrington Hall. Here people reenact the time when Union soldiers invaded the house in the summer of 1864, where they stayed for two weeks while rebuilding the Roswell Bridge, which Confederates had burned to slow the Union forces’ march through the south. A good amount of men volunteer to re-enact this scene during the summer, not for the pay or acclaim, but for their respect for the town’s history.
I should also mention that everyone that works at these historic homes is a volunteer who typically receives very little money for this, if any at all. Volunteers come here after finishing their busy shifts at their actual, professional jobs, to give tours to whoever straggles in from the streets due to their love of history.
That phrase summarizes the feeling of every worker at these historic homes: they love this history. Each hour spent in the heat wearing thick, uncomfortable costumes, each hour spent on their feet while giving tours of the houses, each hour spent reading page after page of family letters—all are done for each persons’ absolute love of Roswell’s history and their dedication to preserving it in the public’s memory.
As I leave Barrington Hall the fluttering ghosts of the house’s history once again strike me. I look at the dining room and think of the little slave girl one docent had told me would fall asleep while fanning the King family during dinner. I pass the formal visiting parlor that where President Theodore Roosevelt had sat while visiting one of his mother’s oldest friends, Eva King Baker. Over a decade later a reporter named Margaret Mitchell interviewed Eva in the same exact spot, asking about her experience as a bridesmaid at Mittie Bulloch’s wedding. I wonder if the stories of Eva, Mittie, and other Roswell families inspired Mitchell when she wrote the famous heroine Scarlett O’Hara in her wildly popular novel Gone with the Wind a few years after the interview took place. I notice that someone had carved into the windowpane near the front door. Dupart believes a child of the house had tried to write their name there, only to be punished. Over a hundred years later the words carved in the glass are impossible to read, but still potent. As I walk down the front porch steps, I imagine the ghosts of charming Southern Belles giggling behind gloved hands, slaves humming a tune while thinking of abolitionists’ promises of freedom, and Union soldiers camped out on the lawn, waiting for the war to end. Behind me the docents prepare themselves for another tour.
“Barrington Drive.” City Data, n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2014. <http://www.city-data.com/fulton-county/B/Barrington-Drive-1.html>
“Barrington Hall: Family Biographies.” Roswell Gov. Web. 20 Oct. 2014. <https://www.rosw-ellgov.com/index.aspx?NID=406>
“Bulloch Hall: Family Biographies.” Roswell Gov. Web. 6 Nov. 2014. <https://www.roswell-gov.com/index.aspx?NID=426>
“Catherine Evelyn King Baker.” Roswell Gov. Web. 6 Nov. 2014. <https://www.roswellgov-.com/DocumentCenter/Home/View/733>
“History of Barrington Hall.” Roswell Gov. Web. 6 Nov. 2014. <https://www.roswellgov.com/-DocumentCenter/Home/View/724>
“Our History: History of Bulloch Hall” Roswell Gov. Web. 5 Nov. 2014. <https://www.ros-wellgov.com/index.aspx?NID=429 >
NOTE: This article originally included the names of the docents I interviewed, but their names have been left out of this version for their own privacy.
View a PDF reimagining this piece as a mock magazine spread here.